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Grim Saudi export -- suicide bombers

Mia Bloom is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and a consultant to the government on terrorism. She is the author of "Dying of Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror."

The attacks in London on July 7 and the near-daily slaughter in Iraq indicate that suicide bombers have become terrorists’ weapon of choice. The London bombers were young men with no criminal records, a profile shared by some among the rising numbers of Saudis entering Iraq via Syria to blow themselves up.

The attacks in London’s Underground and on a double-decker bus may mark the successful opening of a second front by Al Qaeda in its war to oust foreign troops from Iraq. The strategy is twofold: Attack soldiers and civilians in Iraq and hit the U.S. allies at home to force their hands.

Most of the suicide bombers in Iraq are coming from Saudi Arabia. The rise in Saudi bombers stems from a split within the Saudi jihadist movement, according to some Al Qaeda experts. One faction wants to attack the Al Saud monarchy directly, while another contends that U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq should be the prime target. Because Al Qaeda views Saudi Arabia as its primary source of money for global jihad, it has concentrated on striking in Iraq.

The hundreds of accounts of Saudi suicide bombers in Iraq featured on websites provide some information about the bombers and foreign fighters who are playing an ever larger role in the insurgency. An online magazine, named Jihadweb, published a “road to Iraq” guide that advised recruits traveling through Syria to “wear jeans” and “use a portable music player” so they would appear more Western.

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Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on terrorism, concluded that of the 154 foreign fighters killed in Iraq over a six-month period, 61% were Saudis, with Syrians and Kuwaitis together accounting for another 25%. But the jihadist websites claim that 70% of the suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudi nationals.

Among those who blew themselves up were engineering students and English majors, the son of a Moroccan restaurateur and a handful of Europeanized Arabs. Many of the bombers were married, well-educated and in their late 20s, traits they shared with the Sept. 11 hijackers. Indeed, some of the websites cite 9/11 as the source of the bombers’ inspiration to travel to Iraq.

There are also long lists of names about whom little more is recorded than a country of origin and the word “martyr.” Unlike the shahids in Palestine, these martyrs do not make a videotape or last will and testament. Although their trips to Iraq are underwritten by a benefactor, the martyrs’ families do not benefit financially. In place of funerals attended by hundreds or even thousands, some websites provide telephone numbers to call so you can congratulate families of the martyrs.

Fearful of a backlash while trying to convince the U.S. that their country is an ally in the war on terrorism, Saudi officials have expressed alarm over the predominance of Saudi names on the martyr lists. They don’t deny that some of their citizens have joined the jihad in Iraq against the U.S., though they caution that the lists may be Al Qaeda propaganda or a recruiting tactic.

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There’s no denying that since attacks in Riyadh in May and November 2003, the monarchy has more aggressively arrested and prosecuted Al Qaeda operatives on Saudi soil. There are two strains of Islamic opposition in Saudi Arabia: One is violent and bent on destabilizing the monarchy and forcing its Western supporters, notably the U.S., to flee, while the other is more moderate and promotes political, social and religious reforms. The government has clamped down on both. In response, the most radical elements have headed for Iraq. The monarchy appears perfectly willing to allow them to leave Saudi Arabia, which effectively passes the problem on to the United States, its coalition allies and Iraqi civilians.

The mission of the foreign suicide bombers is simply to kill as many Iraqi Shiite civilians -- and Americans -- as possible. The Sunni Arabs who carry out suicide attacks believe that Shiites are attacking Sunnis in Iraq. “They look at the war in Iraq as an attack on Sunni Islam -- not Iraq, not Saddam,” said one former CIA officer. Other foreign terrorists target Iraq’s infrastructure.

Public opinion surveys collected by the U.S. military show that even Iraqis who would like coalition forces to withdraw immediately disapprove of these attacks. In fact, there’s mounting evidence of growing hostility toward the foreign jihadists, which may explain why their recruitment efforts in Iraq have had limited success. Although Abu Musab Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, has set up recruiting offices within the country, there has been little enthusiasm among Iraqis to join the insurgency. Since 2003, Iraqis have carried out less than 10% of more than 500 suicide attacks, according to Paz. In May, several of the suicide truck bombings in Baghdad were detonated by remote control, their drivers apparently unaware that they had “volunteered” for martyrdom.

The war in Iraq may galvanize more sleeper cells in Europe to carry out suicide bombings, but European Muslims also suffer from socioeconomic disadvantages and discrimination that create a hospitable environment for radical Islamic recruiters. Some experts believe that Italy or Poland could be the next targets in the possible Al Qaeda campaign to pressure their governments to withdraw their forces from Iraq. However, the question is whether imported, immigrant or home-grown terrorists pose the greatest threat.


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